|A drawing I did of a man named Tony|
My favorite art blog (Two Coats of Paint) posted this bit about irony in art a week ago...
Blogging at the NY Times last week, Princeton French prof Christy Wampole, assailing the hipster mentality, suggested that our culture needs to move beyond irony.
Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
Then, at Hyperallergic, Kyle Chayka suggested that irony is, in fact, a good thing, especially for art.
[I]rony is a less direct, more complex method of communication than superficial honesty or transparency might prove to be. But there’s a responsibility and a weight to that complexity and the choice to use it, and that weight, its particular emotional spin, can sometimes prove useful, in life as well as in art.
He cites Warhol's Marilyn, Richard Artschwager, and recent paintings by Amy Feldman and Tatiana Berg as examples of how artists are making complex, slippery statements that may be both sincere and ironic at once.
I guess I no longer understand the line between irony and non-irony, between sincerity and sarcasm. Maybe instead, it’s just an aesthetic continuum, where sincerity can continue to have its lofty perch at one end of the spectrum and the blackest of morbid humor can anchor the other? It would be more fun that way.
When he mentions "the blackest of morbid humor" Chayka is getting at an important idea. Artists who amuse themselves and their audiences are not necessarily engaging in irony, although that may be a component. Instead of using the blanket term "irony" then, we should (if compelled to attach a label) start thinking more specifically about the type of humor, and combinations thereof, that artists are deploying. The label "ironic" flattens the dialog, draining the work of richness and complexity. Some other categories to consider: slapstick, whimsy, dirty, droll, morbid, deadpan, farce, caustic, self-deprecation, satire, parody, sophomoric...
I never had a good grasp on the concept of irony, but I always had an intuitive sense about what was sincere and what was not. I grew up in suburbia... a bizarre world of artificiality and shrink wrap. For example, my peers used copious amounts of hair spray, went to tanning booths habitually, and watched Carson Daily's TRL... (need I say more). Meanwhile, I gravitated toward the Delta Blues and Chicago Blues... musicians like Howling Wolf, Skip James, Johnny Shines, and Otis Rush. This was my way of getting the full dose of blistering reality to contrast the shinny plastic surrounding me. I learned to sniff out superficiality. You know, those hollow yet polite social conventions like saying to someone "How about that weather?" or "How about them Bills?" (Don't forget I'm from Buffalo, NY). That kind of stuff just infuriated and confused me.
Anyway, some art gives me that same feeling of repulsion... as if I could see right threw it... see through the slick surface all the way to the brittle back bone of strategy... of its intention... of its calculation to succeed in being "new" or "the next big thing". Sure sometimes my "x-ray" vision is wrong and I end up coming around to the artwork... but even if my ability to sniff out insincerity is right 51% of the time, it's better than guessing.
Yes, our culture would benefit from moving beyond irony. I'm a school teacher, and being a good teacher you're taught not to use sarcasm in the classroom because some children will mistake it for being literal... or even if they intellectually understand the irony they may misunderstand it emotionally. Children are the most sensitive and perhaps most sincere people. That's why their art is so special and different from ours. Moreover, we encourage them to be honest and truthful because we know those to be great virtues... morals that will help guide them through the chaos of life.
So when it comes to irony in art I perceive it as weakness and a crutch in comparison. How difficult and humbling it is to be sincere and forthright in expression! And how powerful it is to witness such art that epitomizes this mentality! The old, scratchy, leathery Delta Blues musicians that sing about heartbreak, being mistreated, or a true love goes so much deeper into your heart than a Jeff Koons vacuum can ever go. But hey, if there wasn't slick conceptual art like Jeff Koons around, I might not be the authentic painter that I am today.